Interview with Gena Park, President of JTS
Gena Park, President of JTS, an International Relief Organization
Met Ven. Pomnyun Sunim in New York and completed the Enlightenment Retreat
Began working as a volunteer interpreter when the Sujata Academy in India was built in 1994
Became the president of JTS in 2009
Carried out various projects and relief activities in eight countries including the Philippines and Afghanistan
“The internal stability of JTS is made possible by the unity of work and practice”
▲Gena Park, the president of JTS, was born in Busan, South Korea in 1961 and immigrated to the U.S. in 1979. In 1986, she was hired as a manager at Unique Packaging Group, and in 1989, she was promoted to the position of eastern district manager. Her relationship with Ven Pomnyun Sunim began after participating in the Enlightenment Retreat in New York in 1992. She has been volunteering for JTS since 1993 when JTS India was established. She moved back to Korea in 2000 and took the position of Director of JTS International Project Headquarters in 2002. In 2009, she became the president of JTS and since then has been overseeing international relief activities. (photo by Jaewan Park)
“I’ve been conducting relief activities for the past 20 years as if it was the most natural thing in the world. I have never thought of what I do as volunteer work. I just worked without thinking about whether I was helping other people or not. As I worked diligently on projects, they sometimes grew into bigger ones, which naturally required me to work more. I have continued this work because it is beneficial to others and makes me feel good. When I come back from international relief work and people thank me for my efforts, I feel embarrassed about being praised for something I simply enjoy doing.
JTS, an International relief organization (Chairman of the Board, Ven Pomnyun Sunim), has celebrated its 20th anniversary. Operated 100% by volunteers from the chairman to the staff, JTS has been lending a compassionate hand to those in need in every corner of the world for the past 20 years. Starting with the establishment of the Sujata Academy in India in 1994, JTS has been providing educational support and emergency relief in various countries including the Philippines, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Cambodia, putting into practice the spirit of performing good deeds without expecting anything in return. At the center of all JTS activities is President Gena Park, who has been with JTS since its establishment. She met Ven Pomnyun Sunim, who was the head dharma teacher of Jungto Society and founder of JTS, while she was working as a businesswoman in the U.S. Soon after, she began working as a volunteer for JTS when JTS India was founded in 1993. After a period of working for JTS overseas, she moved to Korea in 2000. She served as the director of the JTS overseas relief headquarters from 2002 until 2009, when she became the president of the organization.
Meeting Ven. Pomnyun Sunim in New York
Park was a workaholic during the time she was the district manager of a jewelry company in New York. She began her career at the age of 26 and did her best to accomplish the tasks before her. Each day, she went to work at 6 am and got off work at 2 am while also working weekends. As a result, she was promoted to district manager in just three years, but she was never happy. Being a young, single female, she had a difficult time supervising male workers, so she got a perm and put her hair up to make herself look older and stronger.
One day, she felt so exhausted and drained from work that she desperately wanted to visit a Buddhist temple. She missed the traditional Korean temple structures that she had seen in Korea. “After asking around, I visited Bulguksa Temple in New York, but it was housed in an apartment building. Disappointed that the temple was not the traditional structure I had expected, I hesitated sitting down, but one lady spread a handkerchief on the floor and invited me to sit on it. Thanks to that lady I continued going to the temple. One day, she suggested that I attend a dharma talk in Flushing, New York. It was given by a monk who was known for excellent dharma talks. I had no concept of what ‘a good dharma talk’ was, but I went to see the monk since I was giving the lady a ride. I drove two hours to get there. As it turned out the monk who gave the dharma talk was Pomnyun Sunim.”
Since she has been more used to English than Korean at the time, Park could not concentrate on the dharma talk that was given in Korean. However, the post-talk announcement that the Enlightenment Retreat would be held in a week caught her attention. She was intrigued by the question, “What is enlightenment?” and became excited to learn the answer. She could hardly wait for the week to pass. In the fall of 1992, she completed the first Enlightenment Retreat held in the US. “The Enlightenment Retreat was held at a motel at the edge of a mountain. The 17 of us who participated had to sit cross-legged for so long that my back went stiff. However, I could not help but be stunned by Pomnyun Sunim’s perceptive and acute observations. After the retreat, I became a whole new person.”
When Park visited South Korea at the end of 1992, her life changed drastically. “When I made plans to visit Korea, I contacted Ven. Pomnyun Sunim before I arrived. Surprisingly, he came to pick me up at the airport himself. I followed him to the Jungto Dharma Center in Hongje and did the 10,000 prostrations as he suggested. Afterwards, he asked me to accompany him as an interpreter to India where he was helping to build a school. So I did.”
Dungeshwari, India, the Home of the Untouchable
The place Park arrived with Pomnyun Sunim was Dungeshwari, India, a region inhabited by the “Untouchables.” Dungeshwari was known for Mt. Pragbodhi, which the Gautama Buddha had climbed to attain enlightenment. Under Mt. Pragbodhi lived about 200 villagers who sustained themselves by begging. Dungeshwari was a barren and arid land where people used to dump corpses. It was inhabited by the Untouchables for whom it was a crime to even touch a person of a higher caste. The people of the village had little to eat, and the children could not even dream of attending school. Outsiders, other than pilgrims from Tibet and Sri Lanka, rarely entered Dungeshwari.
Pomnyun Sunim lived in Dungeshwari while he built a school with the villagers. Park commuted from a hotel in Bodghaya. “I have been to many remote areas during the last twenty years, but never seen a place as undeveloped as Dungeshwari. Everyone said that I would not survive there. Even the taxi drivers refused to go into Dungeshwari. Pomnyun Sunim was the first foreigner to live in the village. The villagers repaired a barn for him using cow dung, which they consider sacred. He lived in that barn and slept in a sleeping bag while the school was being built. Back then, Dungeshwari was an abandoned place and did not have any property value. However, in order to instill pride in the villagers and to provide an opportunity for them to do good, Pomnyun Sunim built the school on the land donated by ten villagers.
Park, besides interpreting, cooked for the people of the village and bathed the children. “At first, I planned to only cook for the thirty laborers, but I noticed that they shared their food with their children. Soon, the laborers brought their own cauldrons, and the women of the village helped me cook meals for a hundred and fifty to two hundred people. After bathing the children of the village, I clothed them with clothes donated from Korea. The villagers were that poor.”
Teachers were needed for the school. Out of the ten thousand people in the region, only two people had finished the 4th grade. They were hired as teachers, and they conducted classes under a tree while the school was being built. In January of 1994, the Sujata Academy opened with three classrooms. At first, the children of the village did not come to school since they had never been to one. “The children began to come to school when we started to give out candy. However, conducting the classes was very challenging because the students often brought their two to three-year-old siblings to school. As a solution, we decided to build a kindergarten.
Sujata Academy, which started with just three classrooms in 1994, has grown to include three schools with 500 students. It also operates a vocational school for job training, 17 kindergartens for toddlers, and the Jivaka Hospital for the health of the villagers. Sujata Academy is now the most popular school in the region. “Sujata Academy’s reputation for providing quality education attracted Vaisha children to enroll as well. However, conflicts occurred between the Untouchables and the Vaishas. After experiencing many ups and downs, it was decided that the caste system would not be applied inside the school so that all of the students, regardless of their caste, could be equals during school. Sujata Academy celebrated its 20th anniversary in January. I felt so much pride as I watched the students’ confident performances of Taekwondo and traditional dances.”
20 Years of Taking Care of People in Need Around the World
During the past 20 years, JTS has set up field offices and implemented various educational projects in India, Philippines, Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Afghanistan. JTS has been sending nutritional food and medicine to North Korea since 1997, and in 2006, JTS began providing aid to 50 orphanages, nursing homes, and disability centers throughout North Korea. Additionally, JTS provided emergency aid to North Korea after the 2004 Ryongchon Station explosion incident and after various flooding disasters from 2006 until 2012.
“Providing aid to North Koreans is one of the biggest projects of JTS. We sent food, school supplies, clothes, shoes, and blankets to children in North Korea. However, given the deterioration of relations between North and South Korea, JTS Korea has not been able to send aid to North Korea for the last two years. Instead, we have been sending 20 tons of corn noodles to North Korea every month through JTS China. Recently, however, JTS Korea was able to provide some aid again in the form of the 100,000 saplings that were sent in May and June.”
In 2003, JTS ventured into Mindanao, the Philippines, an area known as a dangerous warzone. Starting off with the Muslim villages, JTS has built a total of 31 schools for 40 villages in Mindanao. Also, JTS has been supporting the initiative to preserve the indigenous culture and promote permanent peace in the region.
Park said that the 2002~2003 Afghanistan aid activities were among the most dangerous and unforgettable. “We almost got killed by the Taliban while riding a taxi, and we had to look for the motel disguised as penniless travelers when we got to our relief aid destinations late at night. I have countless stories to tell about that time. Since the people there desperately needed our help, providing aid to them was all the more worthwhile. The most memorable thing I did during that time was looking after 5 children who were desperately in need of care.”
One evening, while preparing to wrap up relief activities in Afghanistan, Park saw a picture of a child who had a festered wound on his bottom. Feeling sorry for the child, she went to look for the child next day in order to give him some medical treatment. Sadly, he was not the only one who needed medical help. There were children suffering from injured eyes, hunched backs, skin diseases, and a variety of other ailments. Park couldn’t ignore their pain, so she decided to stay another week. During that week, she was able to provide appropriate treatment for each child. She also fed the children and their parents and bought each of the children a pair of shoes. When she came back to Afghanistan two months later, a child ran up to her. He was one of the five children she had treated, and when she had first met him, he had not been able to walk.
“Whenever I go to our relief aid sites and meet the people in need, I can’t sleep at night. Rather than fearing for my safety, all I can think about is providing them with food and blankets as soon as possible. In those situations, I could not help but become compassionate and think of helping people as my calling. You wouldn’t stand by and do nothing if you or your family experienced such difficulties, would you? As I participate in the relief efforts, I work like it’s my job rather than doing something for other people. So I am very proud of my aid activities, and I wouldn’t exchange it for all the money and the highest positions in the world.
It has been 20 years since Park first became a volunteer for JTS. She moved back to Korea in 2000 after selling her business in the U.S and began her life as a relief worker. She finds volunteer work rewarding but does not think of it as doing something for others. She gives alms without an expectation of a reward.
“I don’t think I am doing anything extraordinary. Everyone feels sympathy for people in need. The only difference is that I am taking action to directly help them. Also, watching Pomnyun Sunim work so hard to address the world’s problems and to help people in need inspires me to contribute to the cause in any way I can. For me, there is nothing more worthwhile than providing the hungry with food, treating the sick and giving children educational opportunities. If I worked alone though, I would have little to no real impact. However, since I work as a group with Pomnyun Sunim, other relief workers, and supporters, we have been able to provide a significant amount of help to those in need around the world.”
Park plans to focus on strengthening the internal stability of JTS based on the principle of unifying work and practice. “Since JTS is operated 100% by volunteers, many staff members don’t stay long, so there is a chronic shortage of skilled workers. Until now, JTS volunteers have focused on carrying out relief activities from the perspective of NGO workers rather that of practitioners. But, from now on, I plan to strictly apply Jungo Society’s principle of unity of work and practice in our activities, so that the JTS staff can work based on this perspective.”